I love the British Museum. An awe inspiring collection of amazing cultural artifacts housed in a wonderful building.
Could anything better ever come from mass theft?
In researching my Institute’s forthcoming free online course on Money and Society, I visited the Museum’s exhibition on the history of money, that is sponsored by Citibank. I was pleased to see that the Museum presents clay tablets from ancient Sumeria as the first examples of money. Over a few thousand years old, these tablets show the earliest known accounts, with promises of beer and other crucial daily items! Despite this, my Museum guide moved swiftly on, to suggest that ancient coins from Lydia were the first forms of money. Was this just one misinformed volunteer? I searched online and found two videos made by the museum and the BBC (see below). They show that the British Museum staff and BBC editors are probably misguided, and definitely misguiding their publics.
They assume money has to be a thing, a precious metal, rather than an agreement about a unit that can enable exchange.
The Sumerian tablets show to us that records of promises are the first forms of money we have on record; that doesn’t mean the commodities that were being promised were the money. Promises, i.e. credit, is the first form of money we can discover from digging things up!
The BBC video for schools also invents another fictional story when they say that Emperors put their faces on coins for ego reasons. Maybe they had egos but that isn’t reason. The origin of coins is that the Emperors made a certain object a currency that they then required as taxes/tribute in order to force a population(s) to provide real good and services to soldiers, who would be given the coins as the armies/authorities controlled the mines and the mints. Unless the coins were then demanded as taxes from the population, the population probably wouldn’t bother wanting them and therefore might not give the soldiers any food, drink or hospitality. So coins were born through war and oppression. The practice continued through the European empires, where colonial powers demanded taxes from Africans, Asians and others be paid in a currency the Europeans invented and controlled.
In a few thousand years people wont be able to dig up the trillions of credit there is in our current economy, but they may find some 20 pence coins. Will they conclude we all traded with 20 pence pieces?
In my research for the course, I’ve discovered how much nonsense is presented about the history and nature of money, by our professional economists, business and finance journalists. One key nonsense is the idea that money was invented to cope with the difficulties of bartering goods. That was a story invented by economists like Adam Smith, who simply invented this history of money emerging from barter as it suited the emerging discipline of economics.
What might the avoidance of the real history of money and banking be about? Do we not want our kids, or the general public, to understand how money and banking evolved, with a lot of push, secrecy, squabble and shove?
The problem is that the projection of current assumptions onto the past, combined with the limits of what we can dig up, and the self-convenient fictions of orthodox economists, collectively maintains a view of money that restricts our sense of what money is or what it could be. At a time when we are ravaging our communities and planet in service of these things we call “money” and “debt” this is delusion that must be exploded now.
It’s why I think our free course is important. After taking it you might wonder if the British Museum and Citibank are distant cousins. Our course starts next week!